Mères Tigre? Non!

by Robert Pondiscio
February 5th, 2012

Expat mom Pamela Druckerman wondered why French children seem so much better behaved than their American counterparts.  In a Wall Street Journal essay, she credits French parenting techniques, which she says are marked by an “an easy, calm authority with their children.”  French children don’t run off, talk back or engage in prolonged negotiations with their parents, she notes.  Like Americans, French parents talk to their kids, read to them, take them to sports, music lessons and museums.  But helicopter parenting?  Non!  Says Druckerman:

“The French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. ‘For me, the evenings are for the parents,’ one Parisian mother told me. ‘My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it’s adult time.’ French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves.”

How do they get their children to behave?  When she asked French parents how they disciplined their children, Druckerman found they were often nonplussed.

“’Ah, you mean how do we educate them?’ they asked. ‘Discipline,’ I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas ‘educating’ (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.”

An essential part of this education, “is the simple act of learning how to wait,” writes Druckerman.  And it explains, in her view, why French babies sleep through the night while toddlers sit quietly in French restaurants as their parents eat dinner. Unlike American kids who snack all day, French kids have three meals a day and one snack around 4 pm, according to Druckeman.

“American parents want their kids to be patient, of course. We encourage our kids to share, to wait their turn, to set the table and to practice the piano. But patience isn’t a skill that we hone quite as assiduously as French parents do. We tend to view whether kids are good at waiting as a matter of temperament. In our view, parents either luck out and get a child who waits well or they don’t.”

Druckerman is painting with a pretty broad brush here in her characterization of American and (one assumes) French parenting practices.  Indeed, Druckerman’s observation that “middle-class America has a parenting problem” effectively translates to “affluent America has a parenting problem.”  A more authoritative brand of parenting never went out of style in many U.S. families.  Druckerman describes her “strategy” of finishing restaurant meals quickly to keep her daughter from being “kicked by a waiter or lost at sea” after refusing to sit still in her high chair.  “We left enormous, apologetic tips to compensate for the arc of torn napkins and calamari around our table,” she writes.  No doubt there are many families with a very different “strategy” for dealing with children who can’t behave themselves in restaurants.  It’s called “staying home.”

I’d like to see some data before I conclude that all American parents are Velveeta-eating surrender monkeys who cater to their children’s every whim.  But this is to quibble.  Druckerman’s observations are from her upcoming book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. I suspect that like last year’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it will set American tongues to wagging anew over how we raise our children.